One Family’s Penchant for Pottery: A Chat with Erin Callahan St John

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Aunt and niece potters Isabella St. John & Erin Callahan St John have an exhibition opening this weekend at The Craft Council (2-4 on Saturday), to showcase new work, as well as a show at The LSPU Hall on the 6th to celebrate this new work, including musical sets from Sherry Ryan, Eric West, Pamela Morgan, and more.

What is your relation to Isabella, and how did you two settle on working together here?

Isabella is my aunt. We’ve been working together, and receiving grants since 2001. These grants have allowed me to formally apprentice Isabella and work with other visiting artist who come to NL. The first pieces I made working with Isabella were ceramic cod fish from a two-piece plaster mold.

Is this exactly what it sounds like, the passing of pottery skills from one generation to the next in the same family?

Yes. Isabella plans to pass on these skills to me in hopes that I will follow her footsteps in the craft world. She has devoted over forty years to ceramics. She was one of three founders of the Christmas Craft Fair which began at the Arts and Culture Centre. Isabella has donated countless hours to the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador, been chair twice, and been on every committee. She started the Clay Studio in the Craft Council, which is still providing workshops and has visiting artists from all over the world. These are certainly big shoes to fill, but I am looking forward to it.

Do you feel like traditional craftwork, like quality pottery, is becoming underappreciated in a culture that buys its wares from chain stores like Walmart and Pipers?

I feel the value of certain crafts may always be underappreciated. Mugs for instance, a functional object everyone uses every day. People do not want to pay more than $30. People have been paying less than $30. for handmade mugs since the seventies. Some people think of using this mug every day and feel like they don’t want to pay more money for it, as if it depreciates because you use it every day. Craft brings art and function together to create beauty in the everyday. Craft gets stuck in this slot where it is dismissed as a functional object and therefore should not be expensive. When in reality a well-crafted handmade mug, knife, dress, necklace, or wooden bowl should be more valued because it IS hand made. Now this is not the always the case, but when I go shopping with people I like to observe their selections, reasons for purchasing a mass produced object over a handmade object, and their value and point of view on craft.

When people go to the Craft Council to shop they know they are going to find 90% of the objects are locally handmade. You support NL industry. When you shop at Walmart you know nothing there is handmade and you are hurting our local industry. I think this is a valuable decision people should consider more often.

Tell us all about the project. When and where can we all come see it? 

This project has been in the works for two years. That is when we applied for the show, but in reality it has been over a decade. We began serious production September 2013. Our exhibition opens on Saturday February 1st 2-4 pm at the Craft Council Gallery. This exhibit runs until March 8th, we will also host an Artist Talk at the gallery which is open to the public and a workshop in the Clay studio is in the making.

For those of you who enjoy music, we have organized a concert in celebration of our exhibit at the LSPU Hall for Thursday, February 6th. Tickets are available now at The Hall. This is a part of Isabella’s legacy, she has hosted a concert at The Hall for her previous solo shows. Our line up includes Eric West, Pamela Morgan, Sherry Ryan, Hope Jamieson, Simone Savard-Walsh and Wyatt Hirschfeld Shibley.

This show inhabits our theme Legacy in the form of music. We have traditional NL musicians, like Pamela Morgan, who have spent their lives learning NL music from NL musicians. This direct line, passing skills from one person to the next, is vital for craft, music, folklore, and our future. We do not want Walmart and Pipers to decide what is important to us. We already know, it is our music, craft and culture, the people and their stories.

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